The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a WordPress Theme Framework (Plus In-Depth Reviews)
Since I last reviewed WordPress frameworks two years ago, the nature of frameworks has evolved.
My definition of a framework back then was a parent theme with an API and/or extensive customization options for non-coders.
But things have changed. Not all frameworks are even themes now, let alone parent themes. Some of the frameworks reviewed here take the form of plugins, while others are designed to be used alone, not with child themes.
So what is a framework?
In this post I’ll look at theme frameworks, what they are, and compare some of the best ones, both for users and developers.
- What is a theme framework and what are the alternatives?
- Benefits and drawbacks of using a framework.
- Identifying your criteria for choosing a framework.
- A review of the top frameworks.
After reading this post, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for in a WordPress framework and how to go about finding the right one for you.
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What is a WordPress Framework?
A framework is an advanced kind of WordPress theme or plugin with features allowing users to customize, adapt and extend it.
Frameworks might be designed in one of three ways:
#1. A Parent Theme, for Use with Child Themes
The parent theme might be minimal with child themes required to add all the styling and functionality, or the parent theme might provide most of what you need and the child theme is like a “skin.”
#2. A Standalone Theme for Use without a Child Theme
You might argue that this makes any advanced theme a framework but I’m just including themes with advanced feature sets and an API here.
#3. A Plugin That You Combine with a Compatible Theme
The plugin provides the functionality that a parent theme might normally do while the theme adds styling and customization in the way a child theme might.
You might buy or download your child theme from the framework developer (or a third party) or build one yourself.
The ways in which you can customize a site running on a framework vary according to the framework you’re using. Some include a range of customizations you can make via options screens or (preferably) the Customizer, while others will require you to code. This means that a framework can include some or all of:
- Options screens, which let you customize the content, design and layout of your site
- A bespoke interface which lets you design your site in real time
- Customizer compatibility
- Widget areas in multiple locations in the page or in different template files
- A range of template files (some frameworks include a small number while others have dozens)
- APIs including hooks and functions you can access in your child theme or plugins
- Add-ons in the form of plugins designed to work with the framework.
As we’ll see from examining some frameworks in detail, the features can vary significantly between them so it pays to identify what your requirements are before you pick one.
Alternatives to Frameworks
In some cases, a theme framework might not be what you need to help your development workflow or to speed up the creation of a specific site. Let’s have a look at some of the alternatives:
#1. Parent Themes
It’s easy to confuse theme frameworks with parent themes. A parent theme is any theme which is used together with a child theme, which adds customization to the parent theme. For example, the WordPress default theme is often used as a parent theme which users then customize by creating a child theme with their own template files and styling changes.
While any theme can theoretically be used as a parent theme, a theme framework will offer you much more. As well as the template files and functions included with a parent theme, it will offer customization, add-ons and/or its own API.
#2. Theme Clubs / Vendors
Some theme clubs refer to their product as a framework, but this isn’t always strictly true. Some theme clubs sell themes that share a common code base, but this code base is part of each theme and not provided by a separate parent theme or a plugin.
So strictly speaking, these aren’t frameworks. Some theme clubs refer to their product as a framework, but this isn’t always true…
If you need a professional theme with a range of features for just one site build and don’t plan to use it as the basis of a number of site builds in the future, then a theme from a theme club or vendor (or indeed a free theme from the WordPress theme repository) may be more suitable for you. It will often be quicker to get to grips with than a framework and may be cheaper, too.
#3. Starter Themes
If you’re developing your own framework or creating your own standalone theme, a starter theme will speed up your workflow, but it’s not the same thing as a framework. A starter theme, such as Underscores, is just that – something to start off with, which you then add to to create a fully featured theme. Starter themes shouldn’t be used as parent themes. They generally don’t include any options or APIs either as their role is to be as basic as possible.
#4. Code Libraries
Code libraries or drop-ins are a set of files which you import into your own theme, or one you’ve downloaded, to add extra features and functionality to your theme. They won’t include the template files for different content types but might provide you with an API you can tap into to extend your theme and add extra functionality.
They aren’t frameworks because they don’t provide everything you need to build your site without adding extra themes, plugins and/or code.
Benefits of Using a Framework
So, now you know what a theme framework is and isn’t, it’s time to decide if it’s the right option for you.
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of using a theme framework:
Pro #1. Robust Code
A well-written framework will provide you with a set of robust files that adhere to the WordPress coding standards and will be compatible with well-written plugins. Obviously you can’t guarantee that every framework will be well written, but if choose a framework that is popular with other users or developers with similar needs to yours and has received good reviews, then you should be fairly confident.
Before you download a framework, particularly if you have to pay for it, ask around and find out what your contacts and colleagues use. But be careful that you take into account the fact that their choices will be based on their own requirements, which may well be different from yours.
Pro #2. Support
Many theme frameworks include support from the theme developer or from a community of users. If this is important to you, check what’s available and how much it will cost, as this varies.
I’ll cover support in the reviews of specific frameworks and in the summary at the end of this article.
Pro #3. A Community of Developers
If you need support, training or help writing code, it pays to choose a framework with a large community of experienced developers. This is especially important if you want to create your own child themes or make use of the API and think you might struggle, or if you’re a non-coder who’s going to need to hire someone to write custom code for sites built on the framework.
Pro #4. Speed of Development
If you’re using a framework for just one or two sites, you’ll need something with a swift learning curve that can help you get those sites off the ground more quickly than if you’d used a standalone theme. But if you plan to use the framework for a large number of client sites, then you can invest the time to get to grips with a larger, more powerful framework that will give you more flexibility as time goes on and your skills develop.
Pro #5. Don’t Repeat Yourself
A key reason for using a framework is to adhere to the Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) principle. Your framework will give you a starting point for every new site build that saves you time on the basics. Depending on your needs this will vary from a base on which you can create your own child theme to a theme which you can quickly customize via dashboard screens.
It’s important that your framework includes everything that you’ll need on the majority of site builds you do, and not much more or less. If there’s much less you’ll find yourself adding the same code to every child theme, and if there’s a lot more you run the risk of code bloat. Some frameworks include plugins which you can use to extend individual sites without having too much code in the framework theme itself.
Pro #6. Flexibility and Extendability
For a framework to meet all your needs for future builds you don’t even know about yet, you’ll need flexibility. Some frameworks come with flexibility in the form of options screens which you can use to customize your layout, design and more, and some have APIs which mean you can extend the framework however you need to.
It’s likely that your familiarity with and skill at using the framework will increase over time so don’t limit yourself to options which are all within the range of your current abilities: you may find that you’re tweaking options on settings screens now but in a couple of years time you’re tapping into the API to write your own plugins!
Drawbacks of Using a Framework
Frameworks have many advantages, but they also have their drawbacks.
Con #1. Learning Curve
It could take you longer to get to grips with a theme framework than a standalone theme, although this will vary between frameworks. If you’re just building one site this may well be too long.
Con #2. Reliance on Framework Developer
Once you choose a theme framework, you might use it for years to come on a number of site builds. This means you’ll be reliant on the framework developer to some extent. Before you make your choice, check that the framework is kept up to date for compatibility with WordPress releases and that the support system looks like it’s going to be here to stay.
If your framework isn’t kept up to date and your sites develop security vulnerabilities or bugs, then you may face the prospect of rebuilding them using a different framework or theme. This is one reason why premium frameworks can have an advantage over free ones: the developer is making money from it so is more likely to keep it updated.
Con #3. Cost and Hidden Costs
Having said that, the cost is a potential downside of using a framework, particularly if you’re using it to power personal sites for which you’ll have to absorb all the costs yourself. Premium frameworks are generally sold on a subscription model which means you’ll be forking out every year from now on. And don’t be tempted to skip your subscription renewal: you won’t have access to future updates which could mean your site becomes unstable or insecure.
Con #4. Potential Bloat
Some theme frameworks come with a huge code base that can be quite daunting to understand and take up a lot more space on your server than a simple standalone theme. However, it’s not so much the size of the files that’s a risk as what functions are fired when a site using the framework is loaded. If a framework is firing functions which you don’t need for most of your sites, then it might not be the right one for you.
Identifying Your Criteria to Help Find a Framework
So as we’ve seen, theme frameworks have plenty of benefits and a few potential pitfalls too. But not all frameworks are created equal, which is why it’s important to know exactly what you need before choose. Here I’ll outline some of the criteria that might apply, but remember that not all of these will apply to you and you may have your own that aren’t on this list.
Buying or subscribing to a premium framework will cost you money. If you’re using it for a client site you’ll be able to pass this expense on to your client, and if you’re using it for multiple client sites you’ll soon recoup what you’ve spent.
It will also cost you in terms of any time you spend learning how to use the framework, or it might save you time if the framework quickly speeds up your workflow. Over time this should certainly be the case. Any time will impact on your earning ability if you’re freelance or running a small agency.
Some frameworks are huge while others are minimal. What you need from your framework will depend on your own coding abilities as well as the specific requirements of the projects you’ll be using it for.
If you’re a front-end developer with limited experience of PHP, you may need a sizable framework with options built in, while if you’re happy to add your own code you might want something slimmer.
Again what you require from the interface will depend on how you work. If you’re more comfortable coding your own child themes and accessing the framework’s API via hooks and functions, then the interface may well not be an issue for you – although it might be for your clients. On the other hand, if you want a framework that lets you customize your site visually, finding an interface that you find intuitive and easy to work with will be important.
#4. Coding Requirements
Frameworks with limited dashboard or design options will require you to write code if you want to add customizations and make your sites unique. Check how much of this you’ll need to do and how that matches up with your skill level.
If you do choose a framework with coding requirements outside your level of ability, check that there is a community of developers so you can hire someone for this work. Remember that the support forums or service for any framework don’t include writing bespoke code for you – you will have to pay for this.
#5. Extendability and APIs
For your framework to have the flexibility to power multiple projects now and in the future, you’ll need one which you can extend via its API. Check the documentation or feature listings for your framework to find out how much you can customize it.
#6. Child Theme Availability
If you’re a non-coder who wants to be able to build professional sites, you’ll need access to a library of child themes for your framework, as you don’t want all of your projects to be identical. Child themes might be available from the framework developer or vendor, or they might be available via third parties. If you can’t find what you need for a given project, choosing a framework with a community of developers will make it easier to find someone to code a bespoke child theme for you.
#7. Responsiveness and Accessibility
There’s no excuse for not making your sites responsive these days, and definitely no excuse for not making them accessible. Check that your chosen framework offers these features and the extent to which you can customize responsive page layouts.
Support can come from the theme developer or vendor, via forums or from a community of users and developers. It may cost extra or only be available to users on a more expensive subscription level. If support will be important to you, check these out before making your choice.
Free support may sound great but isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Take a look at the support forum for any framework with free support and check how quickly the developer tends to answer questions – if this isn’t his or her livelihood, this may take longer. If you’re working on a client site and need urgent support, you may wish you’d opted for a premium framework!
#9. Developer Community
If a framework has a large, active community, then that means you’ll have access to support, advice and developers for hire. It also says something about the framework itself – if no-one’s using it, how good can it be?
If you’ll be developing sites that need to support multiple languages, your framework will need to be translation-ready. This doesn’t mean it will be translated, but that it will be coded using internationalization, enabling translation to take place.
#11. Your Personal Criteria
As I’ve said, your criteria will depend on individual circumstances – both your own and those of the project(s) you’re using the framework to support. Take some time noting down the criteria that are important to you and then either rank them in order or give each of them a score out of ten. This will give you weightings you can use when assessing individual frameworks.
So now let’s take a look at some frameworks! Below are reviews of eleven of the most popular frameworks right now. Their popularity and benefits will vary but each has its own features which may or may not be perfect for you.
Note: all costs and features are current at time of writing. I’ve included free frameworks first then moved on to premium ones.
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The Top WordPress Theme Frameworks Reviewed
- Free and open source
- Free and premium child themes
- Large community of users and developers
- Designed as a starting point so no code bloat
- Layout options configurable in the dashboard
- API with action hooks
- Child themes variable in quality
- API has only one function and one filter hook
- Not responsive
The Bottom Line
Thematic is one of the most popular free theme frameworks, and it's developed by Automattic so you know you can rely on it. For developers it's a good starting point as it boasts clean code designed to be used as a starting point so there's a lot less bloat than some of its premium competitors. It also has a wide range of community-developed free child themes: the variety is great but the quality more variable than you'd expect with a premium framework.
However its API is limited: the action hooks are useful but there's only one function and one filter hook. The documentation has been updated since I last reviewed it, with more information on the API but a less user-friendly interface. But the biggest problem for me is the fact that it's still not responsive.
- Free and open source
- Extensive and well documented API
- Dynamic, responsive grid-based layout
- Clean code - minimal bloat
- Just one child theme
- Limited support
The Bottom Line
When I first reviewed theme frameworks in 2014, Wonderful was my favourite free framework for developers, and the features that have been added to it since then make it even better. It's now fully responsive, with a clever dynamic grid-based system delivering this alongside a customizable layout. It's still got great documentation which describes not only its own API but some relevant WordPress concepts too.
However it's squarely aimed at professionals and is less suitable for non-developers. It only has one child theme and support is limited. But if you're a developer looking for a framework you can build on and write your own child themes for, this could be for you.
- Free and open source
- Large range of premium child themes
- 24/7 support
- Range of design options including colours, fonts, sliders and more
- Comes with custom widgets
- Portfolio layout options
- No API
- Large feature set may mean some bloat
The Bottom Line
Cherry is a great free framework aimed at users rather than developers. It has no API so you can't extend it, but it does have a user-friendly interface and a wide range of child themes which you can customise to make them work for you, via the Customizer.
Uniquely for free frameworks, 24/7 support is offered, but you will have to pay for child themes. The documentation is clearly written but topics aren't always easy to find because of the interface.
- Free and open source
- Lots of built-in features including mega menus, sliders and breadcrumbs
- Visual Layout Editor for each page you create (including widgets)
- Easy to customize your design without code
- API with documentation
- Unyson is a plugin so you'll still need a theme (there's a free one available for it)
- Slightly confusing API
- Theme integration necessary with third party themes
- Unclear who it's aimed at
The Bottom Line
Unison is unusual in that it's not a theme but a plugin, which adds the kind of functionality you'd expect from a theme framework to your site. There's one free theme available for it and it should work with other themes you have installed (although you'll need to go through the theme integration steps documented on the website). This is surprising: Unyson adds plenty of features designed for non-coders but you can't use it without writing some code first, which might put some users off.
The API and documentation are also confusing: as this isn't a theme, you don't extend it in the way you would a theme. Even bearing this in mind, the extension and customization options aren't exactly straightforward.
However the feature set is great for a free framework and once you've got it activated it lets you add a lot of customization to your site without writing more code. And the free theme is modern, good looking and responsive.
- Free and open source
- Thorough documentation including demo videos
- Includes multiple widgets ('particles')
- Advanced features for developers
- Lots of design customization features
- Active community of users and developers
- Only two child themes
- Limited support
- Documentation unclear and badly structured
The Bottom Line
Gantry, like Thesis, is a bit one of those frameworks you'll either love or hate. When I originally reviewed it back in 2014, plenty of advocates for the framework disagreed with my assessment, saying they loved it. But it can be a bit confusing. It uses its own terminology ('particles' for widgets for example) and the documentation is unclearly structured, with user guides mixed in with developer docs. I'm told there's an API but I can't find much information about it in the docs.
For users, the drag and drop interface make it easy for you to create a custom layout and design with Gantry, and for advanced developers there's a feature set that's unique among frameworks,. However for intermediate users and less experienced developers the unclear documentation makes it very difficult to work out how to get started.
- Customize your layout and design and see what's happening as you work
- Clean, modern child themes
- Drag and drop multiple items wherever you want them in your page
- Vast range of features including forms, galleries, sliders, maps, tabs and more
- Edit page elements by clicking on them and selecting options
- Easy social media integration
- Limited range of child themes ('starter themes')
- The Upfront editor can be confusing if you're used to the WordPress interface
- Limited range of fonts (although this could mean less messy design!)
- The code could be tidier - generates a lot of HTML and inline CSS
- No API
The Bottom Line
Upfront is our own theme builder, and it uses a completely bespoke interface to let you customize your layout, design and page contents. This means you have almost limitless flexibility when it comes to deciding what goes where in your site, and is very user-friendly for people who are used to WYSWYG site builders. It lets you add sliders, full width images, videos, galleries, maps, social media integration - anything you can think of, really.
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If you're new to WordPress, or you've used other site builders, this interface feels very intuitive. However, if you're used to the standard WordPress controls you might find it confusing.
While there's a small collection of starter themes, with the new Builder you can build your own themes and create any website layout you want.
Editor's note: Since Upfront has launched, we've added so much new stuff, so head over to the Upfront project page to check out all the latest features.
- Extensive feature set
- Wide choice of professional child themes
- One-off purchase fee
- Large (and growing) user and developer community
- Extensive API
- Suitable for coders and non-coders
- Can take time to learn
- Huge code base - not always suitable for small, simple sites
The Bottom Line
Genesis is still the market leader when it comes to premium theme frameworks. It's vast API, clear documentation and ever growing community of users make it a safe bet.
It's suitable for developers and non-developers, so you can get started with it by using one of the child themes and then develop your skills as you become more confident. Since I last reviewed it, Customizer functionality has been added, making it easier for non-coders to customize their Genesis-powered site. However it is huge which means a lot to learn and the risk of code bloat for simpler projects.
- Fully customizable layout
- WooCommerce compatible
- Google Fonts support
- Extensive API with documentation
- Compatible with other WooThemes plugins such as WooSlider and Projects
- Excellent support
- No child themes - but does incorporate two templates
- Uncertain future
The Bottom Line
Canvas has gone through some changes in recent years. For a while a small collection of child themes was available, but users struggled with these. So WooThemes decided to withdraw them and focus on Canvas as a framework you use alone, without a child theme.
This means that Canvas is great as a standalone framework for creating a customized site using the various design controls provided. It's got a user-friendly interface and lets you customise layout, fonts and design.
For developers it also has an API with clear documentation meaning you extend it by writing plugins for it. The fact that it's compatible with WooCommerce is another bonus.
- Comparatively low price
- Community of developers and users
- Bundled plugins (boxes) with more expensive packages
- API for developers
- Easy drag and drop interface
- Confusing terminology for experienced WordPress users
- Boxes not available as standalone plugins
- Limited range of skins
- Documentation not very clear
The Bottom Line
Thesis tends to divide opinion - if you've used it exclusively and you're not used to WordPress terminology, then you might love it. But if you're experienced with WordPress, it can be confusing. It uses child themes but calls them skins, and it can be extended with something called boxes (not plugins or add-ons which you'd expect). It has a limited range of skins available which is a disappointment considering how long it's been around, but it does use a simple drag and drop interface ('skin editor') which is easy for beginners to get to grips with (although the interface feels a bit outdated).
It does have a large community of users which means there are third party plugins and child themes on top of the rather limited and uninspiring choice offered by the developers. But its API is quite difficult to get to grips with so if you're not experienced with object-oriented PHP you might struggle if you want to extend it yourself.
- Drag and drop interface
- Additional options via extension blocks
- API includes a range of action hooks
- Clear documentation
- Relatively low price
- Limited number of child themes
- Blocks (extensions) cost extra
The Bottom Line
Headway uses a grid-based drag and drop interface to let you customize the layout of your site, together with a library of eight child themes. It lets you add elements to your design like rounded corners and different colours, which feels like a useful feature but could easily lead to some quite messy designs!
It claims to be compatible with 'nearly' every WordPress plugin and also has its own set of plugins, referred to as Blocks, including a slider, a gallery, contact page and testimonials. You have to pay extra for these. The API is good (although not huge) with lots of action hooks, a Blocks API and clear documentation.
Just a word of warning: There have been reports recently that support tickets aren't being answered and staff at the agency aren't being paid. Go to WPTavern.com for updates on the situation.
- Easy, flexible drag and drop interface
- Extensions available as premium plugins
- Custom Post type creation interface
- Multiple types of navigation menu
- Comes with extra widgets
- Google fonts support
- Drag and drop slideshows
- Child themes are clean and modern
- CSS options could lead to some messy sites!
- Limited range of child themes
- Docs only available to members (making it difficult to see what you're getting before you buy)
The Bottom Line
A personal bugbear of mine is when theme and plugin vendors hide their documentation from people who haven't bought their product: surely making the docs public will increase sales, assuming they're good? This is one of the few flaws I could find with Ultimatum, which is a feature-rich framework with some great, modern themes (albeit just a handful of them right now).
There are lots and lots of design customization options, although the inclusion of so many CSS customizations could lead to some pretty messy sites, I fear. There are also some advanced features available via premium add-ons in the form of plugins. Ultimatum does claim to have an API but as a non-member I wasn't able to check this out as it's password protected, disappointingly.
Theme Frameworks Compared
Ease of Use
Beauty & Modernity
And the Winner is…
You thought I’d pick one winner? Sorry to disappoint!
Because everyone will need something different from their framework, there really can’t be one overall winner, as they all meet different needs. However, here are my recommendations:
- If you’re a non-coder looking for a free framework, I’d go for Cherry.
- If you’re a non-coder and you want a premium framework with more features, I’d recommend Upfront or Headway (depending on whether you want the WordPress interface or are happy with something bespoke).
- For developers in search of a free framework, I’d recommend Wonderflux.
- And finally if you’re a developer looking for the grandaddy of all premium frameworks, with an extensive API that you can use to build client sites for the foreseeable future, Genesis would still be my preferred option (although Canvas comes close because of its documentation).
See? I didn’t promise one winner. Six winners – I’m a bit like a tactful teacher judging a children’s drawing contest!
Whichever you choose needs to be the right one according to your own criteria, so really it’s up to you!